downloaded from the web on jan 13 1996 THE SOUND SCULPTURE PAGE by Ken Overton. copyright 919w

* Tom Nunn the creator of Electro-acoustic Percussion Boards.


Tom Nunn is an interesting composer/inventor who is commonly classified as an Electro-acoustic composer. His relationship to space is much like that of an electro-acoustic composer who composes music for performers and/or tape. The instruments he builds are the offspring of his study of the physical properties of metals and his experience in sculpture. His original reasons for instrument building stemmed from an interest in improvisation. Beginning with improvisations on found objects, his alteration of these objects for musical purposes combined with an abiding interest in electronic sounds to generate instruments which he calls Electroacoustic Percussion Boards (EPBs).

Nunn has come to regard these musical instruments as sculptures; but they were created via the dialogue between sculpture and music: "Many of the timbres made available on the EPBs were not conceived musically, but were a result of the sculptural considerations. The same could be said of the effect musical needs had on the sculptural aspects." (Nunn, p. 262) While originating from an interest in musical improvisation, Nunn's project has expanded into realms he didn't anticipate.

In fact, the EPBs are not only useful for the sounds they output, they are good sources of creative input for performers. Nunn makes it a point to build unpredictable features into his instruments. The random and non-linear pitch sequence of sets of nails which stick straight out of the boards and are plucked with the fingers was intentional. On the other hand, vertical, threaded rods mounted along the perimeter of his instruments are tunable and arranged linearly in scales as a performer might expect. As Nunn states: "The emphasis here is not so much on control and mastery of the instrument ... but rather on discovering the inherent tonal and timbral structures the EPB suggests to the player ... I tend to think of the instrument as playing the player as much as the player is playing the instrument. There is, to be sure, a musical interaction between the two." (Nunn, pp. 263, 264)

The range of sounds is large, encompassing mallet percussion, cymbals, gongs, strings, and a variety of other sounds not easily categorized. Adding to these the processing of the electronic sounds, and the range encompasses much of electro-acoustic musical sources as well. Nunn uses any method available to play these devices; his techniques include plucking, strumming, bowing, scraping and striking with combs, knitting needles, guitar picks, sticks, mallets, and possibly the kitchen sink. In addition to the EPBs, he also creates "Space plates", stainless steel plates with bronze rods of different sizes/shapes brazed to one side. These plates rest atop balloons which allow them to vibrate freely when the rods are bowed or struck.

Nunn produces sound art as a musician first, an instrument designer second, and a sculptor last. The music he creates is autonomous from the instruments and performance practice, it can be appreciated in "pure" musical terms. It is perhaps most exciting to discuss it from all of these points of view.

Metallic Regions is performed on one of his EPBs. He begins with an expository section, a kind of ritornello, as it is heard throughout the piece, where each of three families of sounds are presented. The first is produced by striking various parts of the instrument. These tend to be pitched-gong sources with a long decay; included in this family of sounds is a marimba sound. The next family is rattling sounds, including a rapid clicking sound produced by strumming a line of closely placed metal rods or nails with a guitar pick. Other sounds are less traceable, one sounding like a metal chain being dragged across the edge of a metal plate, the other sounding more buzzy, like a guitar string rattling against a pickup. The third family is of drones produced by rubbing and bowing different parts of the instrument. These can be low rumbling sounds, midranged voice sounds or high-pitched squeals, resembling whale calls or unhappy children.

After the initial section Nunn begins to concentrate on the hybrid sounds of his instrument, those which cross boundaries between the families. Loosely employing a rondo form, he uses a recurring set of materials as a slate by which we can compare new sounds as he introduces them. As new material is introduced, it is added to each section of the piece, created more possibilities and an inevitable thickening of the texture. Most sections begin with an atmosphere created by the known materials, adding the new materials as a sort of "solo" voice above them. Sometimes he highlights new sounds by isolating them from other sounds; this avoids a monotonous texture for the whole piece as well as allowing quieter sounds to be used where they would normally be drowned in a thick accompaniment.

Without witnessing a performance or studying the instrument it is difficult to make out the influence of the instrument design on the performance, or the composition. It is also impossible to tell how it affects the physical performance, and what kind of visual aesthetics are involved in that. Although these aspects would make for a richer experience, Nunn's music does not lack for them. As "pure" electro-acoustic music it is interesting and engaging. He composes with a rich palette and a form that is interesting and clear, two reasons why his work should be more widely noted.